Why not doing research all the time can make you a better researcher

Posted in Uncategorized on July 5, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday I read a nice little article  in Nature about how doing something different from research every now and again can actually make you a better researcher. I agree with that completely, so thought I’d expand upon the theme with a few comments of my own. I think this is an issue of particular importance for early career researchers, as that is the stage at which good habits need to be established, so I will focus on PhD students.

The point is that a postgraduate research degree is very different from a programme of undergraduate study. For one thing, as a research student you are expected to work on your own a great deal of the time. That’s because nobody else will be doing precisely the same project so, although other students will help you out with some things, you’re not trying to solve the same problems as your peers as is the case with an undergraduate. Your supervisor will help you of course and make suggestions (of varying degrees of helpfulness), but a PhD is still a challenge that you have to meet on your own. I don’t think it is good supervisory practice to look over a research student’s shoulder all the time. It’s part of the purpose of a PhD that the student learns to go it alone. There is a balance of course, but my own supervisor was rather “hands off” and I regard that as the right way to supervise. I’ve always encouraged my own students to do things their own way rather than try to direct them too much.

The sense of isolation that can come from immersing yourself in research is tough in itself, but there’s also the scary fact that you do not usually know whether your problem has a solution, let alone whether you yourself can find it. There is no answer at the back of the book; if there were you would not be doing research. A good supervisor will suggest a project that he or she thinks is both interesting and feasible, but the expectation is that you will very quickly be in a position where you know more about that topic than your supervisor.

I think almost every research student goes through a phase in which they feel out of their depth. There are times when you get thoroughly stuck and you begin to think you will never crack it. Self-doubt, crisis of confidence, call it what you will, I think everyone who has done a postgraduate degree has experienced it. I certainly did. A year into my PhD I felt I was getting nowhere with the first problem I had been given to solve. All the other research students seemed much cleverer and more confident than me. Had I made a big mistake thinking I could this? I started to panic and began to think about what kind of job I should go into if I abandoned the idea of pursuing a career in research.

So why didn’t I quit?

There were a number of factors, including the support and encouragement of my supervisor, staff and fellow students in the Astronomy Centre, and the fact that I loved living in Brighton, but above all it was because I knew that I would feel frustrated for the rest of my life if I didn’t see it through. I’m a bit obsessive about things like that. I can never leave a crossword unfinished either.

But while it can be good to be a  obsessive about your research, that doesn’t mean you should try to exclude other things, even other obsessions, from your life.

What happened in my case was that after some discussion with my supervisor I shelved that first troublesome problem and tried another, much easier one. I cracked that fairly quickly and it became my first proper publication. Moreover, thinking about that other problem revealed that there was a way to finesse the difficulty I had failed to overcome in the first project. I returned to the first project and this time saw it through to completion. With my supervisor’s help that became my second paper, published in 1987.

I know it’s wrong to draw inferences about other people from one’s own particular experiences, but I do feel that there are general lessons. One is that if you are going to complete a research degree you have to have a sense of determination that borders on obsession. I was talking to a well-known physicist at a meeting not long ago and he told me that when he interviews prospective physics students he asks them “Can you live without physics?”. If the answer is “yes” then he tells them not to do a PhD. It’s not just a take-it-or-leave-it kind of job being a scientist. You have to immerse yourself in it and be prepared to put long hours in. When things are going well you will be so excited that you will find it as hard to stop as it is when you’re struggling. I’d imagine it is the just same for other disciplines.

The other, equally important, lesson to be learned is that it is essential to do other things as well. Being “stuck” on a problem is part-and-parcel of mathematics or physics research, but sometimes battering your head against the same thing for days on end just makes it less and less likely you will crack it. The human brain is a wonderful thing, but it can get stuck in a rut. One way to avoid this happening is to have more than one thing to think about.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been stuck on the last clue in a crossword. What I always do in that situation is put it down and do something else for a bit. It could even be something as trivial as making a cup of tea, just as long as I don’t think about the clue at all while I’m doing it. Nearly always when I come back to it and look at it afresh I can solve it. I have a large stack of prize dictionaries to prove that this works!

It can be difficult to force yourself to pause in this way. I’m sure that I’m not the only physicist who has been unable to sleep for thinking about their research. I do think however that it is essential to learn how to effect your own mental reboot. In the context of my PhD research this involved simply turning to a different research problem, but I think the same purpose can be served in many other ways: taking a break, going for a walk, playing sport, listening to or playing music, reading poetry, doing a crossword, or even just taking time out to socialize with your friends. Time spent sitting at your desk isn’t guaranteed to be productive.

So, for what it’s worth here is my advice to new postgraduate students. Work hard. Enjoy the challenge. Listen to advice from your supervisor, but remember that the PhD is your opportunity to establish your own identity as a researcher. Above all, in the words of the Desiderata:

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

Never feel guilty about establishing a proper work-life balance. Having more than one dimension to your life will not only improve your well-being but also make you a better researcher.

Introduction of me, my ideology and this blog

Posted in Uncategorized on July 4, 2015 by telescoper

telescoper:

A new blog about science education for students with special needs.

Why not give it a follow?

Originally posted on SENSE: Science Education as a Non-Sighted Experience:

If you look at the “About me” section of this set of articles, you will most probably find nothing. The reason for that is deep in the roots of the idea; it does not matter who I am. It does not matter what my name, age, gender is, that does not tell you a lot about me if you know I have long hair and green eyes. Similarly, it really doesn’t change much whether you know my nationality, profession, or the food, music I like. I would be too subjective and biased to introduce myself in words of descriptions, adjectives and attributes. Why don’t you tell me and retell others who I am, what I believe in, what I do, based on the things I say, think or in this case blog post.
I also wouldn’t want to write about me, simply because there are certainly more people thinking the…

View original 388 more words

“Dutch universities start their Elsevier boycott plan”

Posted in Open Access with tags , on July 3, 2015 by telescoper

telescoper:

Good for them!

Originally posted on Bibliographic Wilderness:

“We are entering a new era in publications”, said Koen Becking, chairman of the Executive Board of Tilburg University in October. On behalf of the Dutch universities, he and his colleague Gerard Meijer negotiate with scientific publishers about an open access policy. They managed to achieve agreements with some publishers, but not with the biggest one, Elsevier. Today, they start their plan to boycott Elsevier.

Dutch universities start their Elsevier boycott plan

View original

Bad Statistics, Bad Science

Posted in Bad Statistics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 2, 2015 by telescoper

I saw an interesting article in Nature the opening paragraph of which reads:

The past few years have seen a slew of announcements of major discoveries in particle astrophysics and cosmology. The list includes faster-than-light neutrinos; dark-matter particles producing γ-rays; X-rays scattering off nuclei underground; and even evidence in the cosmic microwave background for gravitational waves caused by the rapid inflation of the early Universe. Most of these turned out to be false alarms; and in my view, that is the probable fate of the rest.

The piece goes on to berate physicists for being too trigger-happy in claiming discoveries, the BICEP2 fiasco being a prime example. I agree that this is a problem, but it goes fare beyond physics. In fact its endemic throughout science. A major cause of it is abuse of statistical reasoning.

Anyway, I thought I’d take the opportunity to re-iterate why I statistics and statistical reasoning are so important to science. In fact, I think they lie at the very core of the scientific method, although I am still surprised how few practising scientists are comfortable with even basic statistical language. A more important problem is the popular impression that science is about facts and absolute truths. It isn’t. It’s a process. In order to advance it has to question itself. Getting this message wrong – whether by error or on purpose -is immensely dangerous.

Statistical reasoning also applies to many facets of everyday life, including business, commerce, transport, the media, and politics. Probability even plays a role in personal relationships, though mostly at a subconscious level. It is a feature of everyday life that science and technology are deeply embedded in every aspect of what we do each day. Science has given us greater levels of comfort, better health care, and a plethora of labour-saving devices. It has also given us unprecedented ability to destroy the environment and each other, whether through accident or design.

Civilized societies face rigorous challenges in this century. We must confront the threat of climate change and forthcoming energy crises. We must find better ways of resolving conflicts peacefully lest nuclear or conventional weapons lead us to global catastrophe. We must stop large-scale pollution or systematic destruction of the biosphere that nurtures us. And we must do all of these things without abandoning the many positive things that science has brought us. Abandoning science and rationality by retreating into religious or political fundamentalism would be a catastrophe for humanity.

Unfortunately, recent decades have seen a wholesale breakdown of trust between scientists and the public at large. This is due partly to the deliberate abuse of science for immoral purposes, and partly to the sheer carelessness with which various agencies have exploited scientific discoveries without proper evaluation of the risks involved. The abuse of statistical arguments have undoubtedly contributed to the suspicion with which many individuals view science.

There is an increasing alienation between scientists and the general public. Many fewer students enrol for courses in physics and chemistry than a a few decades ago. Fewer graduates mean fewer qualified science teachers in schools. This is a vicious cycle that threatens our future. It must be broken.

The danger is that the decreasing level of understanding of science in society means that knowledge (as well as its consequent power) becomes concentrated in the minds of a few individuals. This could have dire consequences for the future of our democracy. Even as things stand now, very few Members of Parliament are scientifically literate. How can we expect to control the application of science when the necessary understanding rests with an unelected “priesthood” that is hardly understood by, or represented in, our democratic institutions?

Very few journalists or television producers know enough about science to report sensibly on the latest discoveries or controversies. As a result, important matters that the public needs to know about do not appear at all in the media, or if they do it is in such a garbled fashion that they do more harm than good.

Years ago I used to listen to radio interviews with scientists on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I even did such an interview once. It is a deeply frustrating experience. The scientist usually starts by explaining what the discovery is about in the way a scientist should, with careful statements of what is assumed, how the data is interpreted, and what other possible interpretations might be and the likely sources of error. The interviewer then loses patience and asks for a yes or no answer. The scientist tries to continue, but is badgered. Either the interview ends as a row, or the scientist ends up stating a grossly oversimplified version of the story.

Some scientists offer the oversimplified version at the outset, of course, and these are the ones that contribute to the image of scientists as priests. Such individuals often believe in their theories in exactly the same way that some people believe religiously. Not with the conditional and possibly temporary belief that characterizes the scientific method, but with the unquestioning fervour of an unthinking zealot. This approach may pay off for the individual in the short term, in popular esteem and media recognition – but when it goes wrong it is science as a whole that suffers. When a result that has been proclaimed certain is later shown to be false, the result is widespread disillusionment.

The worst example of this tendency that I can think of is the constant use of the phrase “Mind of God” by theoretical physicists to describe fundamental theories. This is not only meaningless but also damaging. As scientists we should know better than to use it. Our theories do not represent absolute truths: they are just the best we can do with the available data and the limited powers of the human mind. We believe in our theories, but only to the extent that we need to accept working hypotheses in order to make progress. Our approach is pragmatic rather than idealistic. We should be humble and avoid making extravagant claims that can’t be justified either theoretically or experimentally.

The more that people get used to the image of “scientist as priest” the more dissatisfied they are with real science. Most of the questions asked of scientists simply can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”. This leaves many with the impression that science is very vague and subjective. The public also tend to lose faith in science when it is unable to come up with quick answers. Science is a process, a way of looking at problems not a list of ready-made answers to impossible problems. Of course it is sometimes vague, but I think it is vague in a rational way and that’s what makes it worthwhile. It is also the reason why science has led to so many objectively measurable advances in our understanding of the World.

I don’t have any easy answers to the question of how to cure this malaise, but do have a few suggestions. It would be easy for a scientist such as myself to blame everything on the media and the education system, but in fact I think the responsibility lies mainly with ourselves. We are usually so obsessed with our own research, and the need to publish specialist papers by the lorry-load in order to advance our own careers that we usually spend very little time explaining what we do to the public or why.

I think every working scientist in the country should be required to spend at least 10% of their time working in schools or with the general media on “outreach”, including writing blogs like this. People in my field – astronomers and cosmologists – do this quite a lot, but these are areas where the public has some empathy with what we do. If only biologists, chemists, nuclear physicists and the rest were viewed in such a friendly light. Doing this sort of thing is not easy, especially when it comes to saying something on the radio that the interviewer does not want to hear. Media training for scientists has been a welcome recent innovation for some branches of science, but most of my colleagues have never had any help at all in this direction.

The second thing that must be done is to improve the dire state of science education in schools. Over the last two decades the national curriculum for British schools has been dumbed down to the point of absurdity. Pupils that leave school at 18 having taken “Advanced Level” physics do so with no useful knowledge of physics at all, even if they have obtained the highest grade. I do not at all blame the students for this; they can only do what they are asked to do. It’s all the fault of the educationalists, who have done the best they can for a long time to convince our young people that science is too hard for them. Science can be difficult, of course, and not everyone will be able to make a career out of it. But that doesn’t mean that it should not be taught properly to those that can take it in. If some students find it is not for them, then so be it. I always wanted to be a musician, but never had the talent for it.

I realise I must sound very gloomy about this, but I do think there are good prospects that the gap between science and society may gradually be healed. The fact that the public distrust scientists leads many of them to question us, which is a very good thing. They should question us and we should be prepared to answer them. If they ask us why, we should be prepared to give reasons. If enough scientists engage in this process then what will emerge is and understanding of the enduring value of science. I don’t just mean through the DVD players and computer games science has given us, but through its cultural impact. It is part of human nature to question our place in the Universe, so science is part of what we are. It gives us purpose. But it also shows us a way of living our lives. Except for a few individuals, the scientific community is tolerant, open, internationally-minded, and imbued with a philosophy of cooperation. It values reason and looks to the future rather than the past. Like anyone else, scientists will always make mistakes, but we can always learn from them. The logic of science may not be infallible, but it’s probably the best logic there is in a world so filled with uncertainty.

 

 

In the Heat of the Night

Posted in Film, Music with tags , , , , on July 1, 2015 by telescoper

It seems appropriate to post this, since today has been the hottest day since the last day on which temperatures were at the same level as today. It’s the opening titles of one of my favourite films, In the Heat of the Night, with music provided by the late great Ray Charles. If you haven’t seen the film then you should. It’s part murder mystery part social commentary and it won 5 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Rod Steiger’s brilliant portrayal of Police Chief Bill Gillespie.

I know I am but summer to your heart

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on July 1, 2015 by telescoper

I know I am but summer to your heart,
And not the full four seasons of the year;
And you must welcome from another part
Such noble moods as are not mine, my dear.
No gracious weight of golden fruits to sell
Have I, nor any wise and wintry thing;
And I have loved you all too long and well
To carry still the high sweet breast of Spring.
Wherefore I say: O love, as summer goes,
I must be gone, steal forth with silent drums,
That you may hail anew the bird and rose
When I come back to you, as summer comes.
Else will you seek, at some not distant time,
Even your summer in another clime.

by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

Should Academics be (Facebook) Friends with Students?

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on June 30, 2015 by telescoper

I noticed a short article in the Times Higher last week about a small survey that concluded that more than half academics count students among their Facebook friends. It’s actually a very small survey – of 308 academics, all based in America – of whom 54.4% admitted being “friends” with students.

For those of you who don’t use Facebook, a “Facebook friend” isn’t necessarily an actual real-life friend, it’s just someone else on Facebook with whom  you agree to share information, photographs, music and other stuff. Different people have different policies with regard to whether to accept or decline a friend request (or indeed initiate one). I only ever accept requests from people I know in another context, for example, which restricts the number of people who get to see my Facebook scribblings. Others are less selective and have many many more Facebook friends.

One of the things about Facebook is that people do sometimes share quite personal things, and sometimes things that might be quite compromising in a work context, e.g. pictures of themselves ina  state of inebriation. I suppose that’s why it’s a rather  contentious whether a member of academic staff in a University should or not be “friends” with their undergraduate students. I know many of my friends and colleagues  in academia flatly refuse to befriend undergraduate students (in the Facebook sense) and indeed this is the advice given by some institutions to staff. Most wouldn’t have a problem with having social media interactions with their graduate students, though. The nature of the relationship between a PhD student and supervisor is very different from that between an undergraduate and a lecturer.

There is a point on social media where professionalism might be compromised just as there is in other social interactions. The trouble is knowing precisely where that boundary lies, which is easy to misjudge. I’ve never felt that it was in any way improper to be friendly to students. Indeed I think that could well improve the students’ experience of education. If the relationship with staff is too distant students may not  feel comfortable asking for help with their work, or advice about wider things. Why should being “professional” mean not treating students as human beings?

One can take friendliness too far, however. There have to be some boundaries, and intrusive or demanding behaviour that makes students uncomfortable should be avoided.

I’ve thought about this quite a lot since I joined Facebook, which was in 2007. What I decided to do is simple. If a student initiates a friend request, I usually accept it (as long as I actually know who it is). Not many make such requests, but some do. More often, in fact, students send friend requests after they’ve graduated, when they perhaps feel liberated from the student-teacher relationship. On the other hand, I never initiate friend requests with students, for fear that they might feel pressured to accept it. It’s much the same as with other interactions.  For example, I rarely visit the extensive Student Spaces in the School without being invited there for a specific reason. If I did I’d just feel I was intruding. Many universities don’t bother to provide study space for their undergraduates, so this is probably only relevant here in Sussex.

Anyway, that’s my response. I know it’s a sort of compromise, but there you are. I am however interested in how other academics approach this issue. Plus, I haven’t done a poll for a while. So here we go:

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,217 other followers